Scripture: John 3:1-17; Finding God in the Darkness
Maybe you know the man whose spouse recently died. He was a man of faith, one who had always known the presence of God. After he was widowed, though, his sense of connectedness to God dried up. He was unable to pray. He felt alone in the universe. He was bereft, disconnected from holy presence. We might say he was living in a lightless night.
Then there was the woman whose husband just up and left her one morning. Packed his bags, looked at her with blank eyes, and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m just living a charade, and I’m done.” She hadn’t seen this coming at all. And she was devastated. She, too, lost any sense of a comforting God. She was living in her own figurative night.
Or there were the parents who had lost all contact with one of their children. There was no communication on birthdays or Christmas or Easter. And no explanation of what had caused the fissure. No response to phone calls or emails. Just an angry silence, a gaping estrangement. With endlessly thwarted hopes, a gloomy night enveloped them.
In one of the many rich and beautiful stories John tells about Jesus, a man named Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night” (3:1). John may well be talking about the time of day that Nicodemus comes to Jesus, but I suspect he’s also talking about a state of mind that Nicodemus brings to this encounter. Nicodemus is in the dark. He’s confused. He may well be frightened or desperate. And he has no idea what to expect from this holy man.
Nicodemus is a person of faith. He’s a higher-up in his local church. And he’s fairly astute; he knows that Jesus is a “teacher who has come from God” (3:2). And yet he misses who God is. He fails to see how God shows up in the world. Some need has brought him to Jesus. I imagine he’s hungry for meaning, purpose, joy, or fullness of life. He craves something he hasn’t yet found. And so, in his foggy lostness, he comes to Jesus. Like the recently widowed man and the woman who’s been deserted and the parents who have lost touch with their child, he wants something so badly that he may not even be able to articulate it. He may want a solution or a direction. But most of all—most of all—he wants God. He wants a sense that everything will be alright. He seeks, we daresay, the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
Maybe it’s fair to say that Nicodemus waits. He’s evidently been struggling with the deepest matters of the human heart—why else would he come to this eccentric teacher he’s heard of? He is far more beset by questions than he is satiated by answers. He’s surrounded by a shrouding night sky of mystifying darkness. We might guess he’s waiting for God to turn things around, to make things right.
We, too, live some part of our lives in the dead of night, waiting. Like the widowed man and the jilted spouse and the bereft parents, most of us know at least some periods of what seem like darkness. In a previous church, I once had to let a church staff member go, and when I informed her of her termination, she told me, with icy revulsion, that she had photocopied my personal journal—with the implication that she would happily share it with the church. And while there was nothing in that journal that was untoward or inappropriate, it was my raw and unedited self that appeared there. A few days later, in an inexplicable grace that I deeply appreciated, she sent me a postcard that let me know she hadn’t, in fact, photocopied the journal. But I still felt violated by her threat. It was a time of darkness for me, a time when I craved a peace that seemed elusive.
The darkness, the enveloping night, can enshroud us at any time. It can show up as unrelieved pain, or pervasive loneliness, or an unyielding despair, or a relentless absence of joy. It can show up as a constant low-level fear, or as a tenacious need to control every outcome. The nocturnal shroud can come on suddenly, or appear slowly over time.
And we tend to think of darkness as an awful thing, without any redeeming features—as something to be avoided at all costs. What can we do, we think, to end a dark night of the soul? To be sure, of course, an entire life lived in the pain of that night-time would likely be a grim existence. So we go to God, asking to be freed of the pain.
As with Nicodemus, though, it may be that those lightless places hold the seeds of germination, of a hope-filled process of transformation. I have struggled, in this sermon, with every use of the word “dark,” because I know how often, in history and literature, darkness and blackness—and by extension, people of color—have been equated with evil. So I’m wondering, this morning, if it might be in order to come to see such darkness and blackness, instead, as gifts for the soul.
Sue Monk Kidd, who wrote The Secret Life of Bees, also wrote a spiritual memoir in which she recounts the lifelessness and aridity that overcame her in midlife. An inexplicable dejection had seized her. Confused and apparently alone, she couldn’t fathom how she would ever emerge from this emptiness. Her book, called When the Heart Waits, is a call to remember that those fallow chapters can be, at the same time, rich stages of incubation. As she struggled with her life, it suddenly dawned on her one day that “Whenever new life grows and emerges, darkness is crucial to the process. Whether it’s the caterpillar in the chrysalis, the seed in the ground, the child in the womb, or the True Self in the soul, there’s always a time of waiting in the dark” (p. 148).
Maybe part of the way to live a life in faith is learning to wait expectantly in that darkness. Maybe, paradoxically, that darkness can be a gift. It can open us to new chapters and slingshot us to a richer and truer way to be. In his wonderful little book, Let Your Life Speak, a book a number of us here at Federated are reading this Lent, Parker Palmer writes about how so often it is in the darkness that new direction emerges.
As disciples of Jesus, we are always, in a sense, pilgrims on a journey toward God. And as pilgrims, says Palmer, “hardships are . . . not . . . accidental but [are] integral to the journey itself” (p. 18). By going through those hardships, we learn and grow and become who we really are. I went to college thinking I was going to be a math major. And then I came across linear algebra and learned that I was totally in the wrong field. After college, I had a growing sense that I wanted to help people, so I did some volunteer work filing papers for Amnesty International. It didn’t take me long to realize that, as much as I might have wanted to help people, the filing was deadly dull, and it couldn’t be the way in which I offered my help. Going through the clouds and darkness of that time was a crucial leg on my journey. It’s part of what led me to engage in pastoral ministry.
By welcoming Nicodemus at night, Jesus is welcoming the darkness that is an unavoidable part of life. And he’s affirming that there are rich and verdant gifts to come out of that darkness. When our sons were small, Mary says she prayed to God again and again to keep them safe. And of course that is part of our prayer for our children and each other. But it dawned on Mary one day that the blessings and growth of her life were inextricably tied to the struggles and pain that had come her way. So the shape of her prayers for our children changed. They became much more about asking God to be present in those challenges and to help our sons grow. Her prayers came to acknowledge and see the blessing of the darkness.
For those of us who have seen darkness as unremittingly to be avoided, this recognition of the gifts of that darkness can come to be seen as a blessing. You might want to take some time to absorb the words of our opening prayer this morning, a prayer acknowledging that God dwells in darkness, that the star heralding Jesus’ birth came at night, that a black man carried Jesus’ cross, that prophets speak in ebony voices: “Treasures of darkness,” riches of God all.
Two of our hymns this morning point, not to the curse of darkness, but to its blessing. For years, I’ve loved a line in Brian Wren’s hymn, Bring Many Names: “joyful darkness, far beyond our seeing.” Wren expands on that in our second hymn this morning, “Joyful Is the Dark.” “Joyful is the dark coolness of the tomb,/ waiting for the wonder of the morning;/ never was that midnight touched by dread and gloom:/ darkness was the cradle of the dawning” (v. 4). Even tomb, even death, can be the place in which new life blooms. Grace can come even, and maybe especially, from that place of desolation.
Some wise theologians and writers have accented this and seen the wisdom of the dark in various ways. Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, wrote about the “dazzling darkness.” Howard Thurman, a twentieth-century advisor to and teacher of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote about the “luminous darkness.” And the Greek philosopher Aeschylus, often described as the father of the literary genre we call tragedy, writing in the fifth century before Christ, wrote words that Robert F. Kennedy adapted slightly on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” There is gift and blessing even in the darkness.
At the heart of the blessing of the darkness, of course, lies the promise of God to be with us always. At many memorial services, I read some words of the apostle Paul that say it with rare eloquence: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Or, in the simple and equally eloquent words of our story this morning: even at night, “God so loved the world” (3:16). Nothing—not death, not life, not darkness, not light—nothing can separate us from God’s love. That love for the world and for us is fundamental to our faith. It’s the tenacious love that will not let us go.
Sue Monk Kidd writes about this holy love from a couple of angles. She says, “When I was pregnant with my daughter, my son Bob was three years old and scared of the dark. We put a nightlight in his room, but sometimes he still cried out for me in the middle of the night.
“One night as I held him against me to comfort him, he touched my rounded abdomen and asked, ‘Mama, is it dark inside there where my little brother is?’ (He was convinced that his sister was a boy.)
“‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it’s dark in there.’
“‘He doesn’t even have a nightlight, does he?’
“‘No, not even a nightlight,’ I said.
“Bob patted my abdomen. I patted him. Finally he asked, ‘Do you think my brother is scared all by himself in there?’
“‘I don’t think so, because he’s not really alone. He’s inside of me.’ Suddenly I had an inspiration. I said, ‘And it’s the same way with you. When it’s dark and you think you’re all by yourself, you really aren’t. I carry you inside me too. Right here in my heart.’
“I looked into his face, wondering if he understood what I meant. He didn’t say anything; he simply lay back down and went to sleep. That was the last time he called out in fear of the night” (p. 149).
And this is true for us, as well. Even when the darkness is all-but-overwhelming, we are never left to ourselves. God so loves the world and carries us inside the divine heart. As Kidd continued to struggle with shadows that, from one angle, seemed to linger and occlude, one day she wrote this in her journal: “Today is my birthday. It makes me think of the new life I’m incubating and the Birth-day still to come. Sometimes it seems that life is a grace too severe, too vast, and too beautiful to receive. But I open my hands anyway. Today I’ll talk to myself. I’ll say, Accept life—the places it bleeds and the places it smiles. That’s your most holy and human task. Gather up the pain and the questions and hold them like a child upon your lap. Have faith in God, in the movement of your soul. Accept what is. Accept the dark. It’s okay. Just be true.
“I’ll say to myself, You’re loved. Your pain is God’s pain. Go ahead and embrace the struggle and the chaos of it all, the splendor, the messiness, the wonder, the agony, the joy, the conflict. Love all of it.
“I’ll say to myself, Remember that little flame on the Easter candle. Cup your heart around it. Your darkness will become the light” (p. 171).
We sometimes ache. Loss and death and estrangement are an unavoidable part of life. And in the ache, the pain, the struggle—it’s right there that Christ resides. For God so loves the world. Like Nicodemus, may we go in the dark to God, and be bathed in rivers of grace, filled with the light of that transforming love.